Tyrone coach John Franco knew the week leading up to his team’s game against undefeated Clearfield was going to be a challenge, but he wasn’t quite prepared for what has transpired.
Contact tracing at the school as a result of positive COVID cases have left the team rather depleted. In fact, at Wednesday’s practice only 27 players were available to suit up.
What that will do to the team’s game plan as it prepares for the toughest opponent on its regular season schedule remains to be seen, but this much is certain: the absences couldn’t have come at a worse time because after last week’s win over Bellefonte it appeared the Eagles were heading in the right direction.
Tyrone got its first win of the year at Rogers Stadium in a 21-0 shutout and everything was clicking. The Eagles ran the ball with conviction behind a renewed offensive line. Brady Ronan logged his first 100-yard game. The offense scored on an 80-yard drive in the first quarter.
But where Franco saw the most improvement was in his team’s ability to make plays. The defense stopped 10 plays behind the line of scrimmage, recorded four sacks, and produced three takeaways, two of which resulted in Tyrone touchdowns. On offense, Keegan Gwinn connected with Cortlynd Rhoades in the first quarter for a 37-yard touchdown, one of three plays the Eagles broke for 24 yards or more.
It was the kind of game a young team in search of an identity can build off of, but that growth process could be stunted, if only for a week, if key players are sidelined this week.
“What we thought (with the strong offensive game) was ‘Finally!’ It all hinged on the offensive linemen just did a much better job blocking,” said Franco. “That allowed skill people to use their talents. I felt the offense was doing the things we thought it could do. We needed a big play. Cortlynd and Keegan teamed up on the one, and Brady Ronan made several.”
One thing is certain. Even with a complete and healthy lineup, Tyrone will have its hands full with the Bisons, who have established themselves as the clear favorite to win the Mountain League. They made that much evident two weeks ago when they shut out Bald Eagle Area, the No. 2 contender, 21-0. They followed that up last week with a 53-7 victory over Penns Valley, scoring 47 straight points after falling behind 7-6 in the first quarter after a pick-6 by the Rams.
The teams will hook up Friday at Gray-Veterans Memorial Field. Tyrone, at 1-2, is 1-0 in the Mountain League. Clearfield leads the conference at 2-0 (3-0 overall).
Behind a massive offensive line, Clearfield is averaging 237 yards per game on the ground, and last week the Bisons bludgeoned Valley for 403 yards and 8 rushing touchdowns, upping their points per game above 33.
The Bisons’ offense is centered around the unique talents of Oliver Billotte, a senior quarterback getting looks from as many as 15 Division I schools. The eye test alone sheds some light on why: at 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds, Billotte is a handful, and he can beat you in a lot of ways when Clearfield has the football. This season alone, he’s completed 29 of 56 passes for 476 yards while rushing for another 143 yards and 6 scores (He’s approaching 3,500 passing yards for his career). Though Billotte is far from the Bisons’ only weapon – Mark McGonigal leads the team in rushing with 280 yards while Karson Kline has 203 yards receiving – he’s the straw that stirs the drink.
But all of that offensive ability may pale in comparison to what Billotte can do on defense, where he is a disruptive force to be reckoned with on the defensive line. In three games he has 9 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. He’s a big reason the Bisons have allowed just one defensive touchdown this season.
“You don’t find many quarterbacks that are playing down defensive end, defensive tackle,” said Franco. “He is a big, strong kid. He is definitely one of the best players in the state, not even the area. This kid can really play. Their team is really kind of built around him.”
Finding a way to limit Billotte will be the key challenge for Tyrone, which has been susceptible this season to players of his ilk on both sides of the football. Both Juniata Valley quarterback Lambert Palmer and Bellefonte quarterback Nick Way have run for 100 yards against the Eagles, and their offensive line struggled mightily against hard charging pass rushes put on by Bellwood-Antis and the Hornets.
But Franco has said all season this year will be one of progress and growth for the Eagles, and full roster or not that is what he is expecting Friday night.
“We’re really hurting as far as personnel goes, but as good as Clearfield is we still want to step up and play even better,” said Franco. “These kids have played against Clearfield in junior high. They know them, and they’ve been able to compete with them.”